The shrine was silent. Night had fallen several hours before, and the only sound now was the soft whisper of wind in the bare trees, carrying a rustling noise through the air like voices, back and forth. The lights had gone dark more than a week ago; the electric bulbs and fluorescent glows were gone, replaced only with the soft glow of candles and the harsh silver notes of moon and starlight. In the streets of the city, there was chaos, fear, and turmoil as the world of spirits clashed with the world of the living. Here, in Fushimi Inari Shrine, there was quiet and peace.
The soft rustling near-silence was broken by steady footfalls, the muffled scraping noise of sandal bottoms on stone, as a lone figure walked a path through the shrine, step-by-step through the winding passage. She marked her passage by hundreds of brilliant crimson tori gates.
A single candle lit her way, a soft orange glow in the deep blue darkness. Its light reflected off of the gates. Her name was Megame Kamigawa, and until recently her job at the shrine had merely been occasional part-time work to earn a little on the side and work at a historic institution between college courses and outings with friends. On that night of nights, October 31st, when it seemed as if all hell had broken loose, something had called her and others softly to this shrine. Now, it called her down this path. She was not alone in staying at the shrine, but the complex was large and the path she walked down was empty.
She had not seen one yet, these kami, these spirits of the land. She had heard their calls and chants on the wind the past few nights. Anyone could hear them in the fires, in the battles, in the rage of chaos in the city below the mountain. But it took a deeper listening; it took silence, to hear them in the trees, in the wind, even in the moon and stars. Megame did not know what she was supposed to meet on this path, alone, but she knew that she had been called.
She had worked as a miko, a shrine maiden, a shaman. She had thought it a ceremonial position. She had danced at performances, manned reception counters, helped sell souvenirs, and generally helped out around the shrine. It was a job, if an interesting one at times, but until recently it had been nothing more than that to her. Something else thought otherwise.
She paused as something entered the small circle of light cast by her candle. A fox sat in her path amidst the gates, seated on its hindquarters as it regarded her. Megame could tell this was not simply a passing animal. It was not caught in the light mid-stride. It was not hunting or passing by. It had been waiting, and now it regarded her with yellow slitted eyes.
Megame blinked. There was nothing about its appearance that made it seem like anything more than a simple fox. It did not glow from its eyes or fur, it did not have several tails, and it was quite average in size. Still there was no doubt in her mind that this is what she had been called outside to see.
Megame bowed formally at the waist, respectfully deep before rising again. The fox, for its part, bent down on a forepaw in a reciprocal gesture.
“You are a…kami?” Megame asked cautiously. She shivered as she moved her wind-blown hair from her face. Had the wind been this cold the entire night?
“I’m a fox.” The voice that responded was that of a slightly older woman, a silky-smooth, charming, and seductive voice, with a playful jingle in the words. The fox’s jaws never moved or even opened, but its eyes remained on Megame.
Something in Megame felt that she was being made a fool of. “I can see you’re a fox.” She said “But you’re a kami, a spirit. You can talk after all.”
“Can I not be both?” The fox asked coyly.
“You’re one or the other, a fox or a spirit.” Megame said “Something can’t be two things.”
“Oh my, the little shrine maiden has so much to learn.” The fox tut-tutted. “What makes a fox a fox? What makes a spirit a spirit? Why can they not be both…?”
“Er…” Megame had no answer. What made a fox? Well it was a canid, small with orange fur and clever disposition. But what made a spirit?
“Foxes are mortal.” She settled on. “Spirits are not.”
“A hasty generalization, but not a bad try.” There was a false consolation in the soft voice, amusement held behind sharp teeth.
“Most foxes are just beasts, they live, hunt, grow old, and they die. Their children do the same and life goes on.” The fox said. “Some foxes are special though. They see a little better, they live a little longer, they get a little smarter, and eventually a tale is told, a story of this old and clever fox.”
The fox never blinked as it stared at her, and Megame could not bring herself to break the gaze from those yellow eyes.
“Maybe the fox dies, as foxes do, but the people don’t know. The tales keep going long after the fox. When another clever fox comes they believe it is the same one, that same clever fox living in the mountain. The tale can outlive one fox, it can outlive many foxes, and with each new story the myth becomes stranger, the fox becomes more potent, and the tale becomes more real.”
The fox rose to its feet, bushy tail listing lightly in the breeze.
“They told stories of foxes that grew hundreds of years old, gaining a new tail with each passing century. They told stories of foxes that could do magic which could charm and deceive.”
The clouds moved, the light shifted, the glimmering orange candle in her hand changed to a pale blue, casting the red gates in an unearthly light.
“And as the tales grew older the foxes grew smarter, smart as a man, perhaps smart enough to even change their shape.”
There was another shift in the air and before her stood not a fox, but a woman. It was not some metamorphic transformation, no visible shift between human and fox. Megame was unsure of when the shapes had switched, or if they had even switched at all.
The fox woman looked somewhat older than Megame, perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, round-faced with a voluptuous figure, and dressed in a simple yet elegant komon of brilliant red beneath her sleek black hair. Though she appeared undeniably human several elements of the fox remained. She still had the long triangular fox ears poking through her long hair, a single bushy tail swayed behind her, the light cast by her floating fire still showed a fox’s silhouette on the shadow behind her, and she retained her brilliant yellow eyes with slitted pupils.
Megame’s breath caught in her throat. It was one thing to hear a story, but to see magic, real magic, before her eyes was something else entirely. She took a step back, before she caught herself doing so.
“H-how did you do that?” Megame stammered, fighting down the urge to flee. The fox merely smiled.
“People tell stories to each other, it’s what you’re good at.” The fox continued. “You told stories about foxes and tengu and tanuki, about dogs and wolves and tigers, you told stories about mountains, rivers, the sun and moon. Maybe you were so busy telling stories you didn’t stop to realize that we were listening too. You knew that better long ago, in ancient days. In those days it was not just ‘The land’, this country was the Land of Eight Million Spirits, all of them with stories you had written.”
“So why are you here?” Megame asked “Why are all these spirits coming back?”
“I don’t know.” The fox seemed wistful as it broke the gaze it held on her and flicked its eyes up towards the moon. “Something happened, something changed. The kami are returning…or maybe we’re just waking up from a long sleep. We were the first to notice, the animal spirits, so close to the world, and to you. Now the spirits of the dead, the restless and the tormented, the legendary and the revered rise as well, moving like a reflection among the living. Soon the spirits of the land will awaken again; the mountains and rivers will live and breathe as they once did. And after them, perhaps even the great Okami, the divine spirits, shall walk the earth once more, sustained not on tales but on worship.”
“Is it like this everywhere?” Megame asked “Even outside of Japan?” Without power, without electricity, it is as if the world outside the city had ceased to exist.
“It must be so.” The fox woman nodded. “Their legends are different, their spirits in different forms, their gods and their monsters different from ours, but all of us can feel it, everything is coming back.”
Megame stood in silence. If things like this were happening worldwide, then this was not just a temporary crisis. This was what change truly was, a shift in the understanding of the relationship between the real and the spiritual. The world, which had shrunk so small, suddenly seemed vast again.
“What am I…what am I even supposed to do?” As the reality of the shape of the new world began to hit her, her own insignificance seemed to bear down upon her shoulders. It was one thing to share a planet with seven billion people. It was quite another to share it with a world of spirits, monsters, and gods.
“You will do what humans do best.” The fox smiled at her, and in the blink of an eye, it was in a fox’s shape once more. “You will tell a story. Your words and your actions will be like text on a page, lines of a play, and the notes of a song. You will tell a story, and we will listen.”